By Kevin Walter Johnson
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Forty days after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a day after nationwide rallies organized by student advocates against gun violence, Virginia’s ninth gun show of the year was held at Richmond Raceway. Standing beneath the Pepsi sign in the food court of the exhibition hall, two men with rifles on their backs discussed current events.
“I’ve been deliberately avoiding the news. They’re lying just to attack us,” one man said. The other replied, “There’ll be a war coming if they keep this up; they’re asking for it.”
That conversation reflected the tone of many people attending the Showmasters Gun Show on March 25. Through the sets of double doors and past the state’s most well-defended hot dog stand, the tables of red, white, blue and camouflage stretched to the back of the room. The expo center held more than 750 vendors, according to the event organizers, selling tactical gear, military history and especially firearms. Attendees of all ages shuffled between the collapsible tables that displayed guns of all calibers. These veterans, hunters and gun enthusiasts offered a glimpse of the modern culture surrounding guns in Virginia.
To understand part of the gun culture in Virginia, consider the results of the 2017 gubernatorial election.
Republican candidate Ed Gillespie ran a campaign emphasizing the importance of the Second Amendment, a message reinforced through donations and advertisements from the National Rifle Association.
To counter this, Democratic nominee Ralph Northam supported gun control legislation and spoke out against gun violence after the Las Vegas shooting in October. In the general election, Northam beat Gillespie 54 percent to 45 percent.
After the election, the debate shifted to the Virginia Capitol, the most prominent battleground for gun-related legislation. Dozens of firearm-related bills were introduced in the House of Delegates and state Senate.
Democrats pushed for gun control bills including efforts to establish universal background checks for gun buying and to ban bump stocks and similar gun modifications. Republicans advocated bills to expand gun rights, including a measure to repeal the prohibition on carrying firearms or other dangerous weapons into a place of worship.
In the end, almost all of the bills failed in what Gov. Northam characterized as a bipartisan legislative session.
On March 2, the friction over guns and gun legislation boiled over in the House and led to a heated speech from Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper. He admonished the Democratic delegates for their criticism of the Republican Party in the wake of the school shooting, furthering the divide between the two parties on the issue. The Democratic response was similarly impassioned, with many representatives calling for an apology from Freitas.
At the March 25 gun show, another symbol of Virginia’s gun culture stood 30 feet from the entryway, behind a table and handing out stickers that read “Guns Save Lives.”
That table, manned by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, was neatly set with pamphlets and flyers carrying the group’s information. The VCDL spokesman at the gun show, who asked not to be identified, described the group as a “grassroots gun rights organization protecting Virginia citizens’ right to the Second Amendment.” The group has received attention from the news media since its founding in 1994 for attacking many Democratic state officials for their positions on gun control.
“We’re here to provide information and a sense of representation for the gun owners of Virginia,” said the spokesman. “While we lobby through grassroots methods, we are totally bipartisan.”
The group’s website proclaims its philosophy to “go on the offensive.” Information on membership and events are placed between articles decrying the “Dangers of Universal Background Checks” and alleging a media bias against firearms.
While Virginia gun culture is most exposed in the public setting of a gun show, a more hyperactive and radical portion of gun enthusiasts live in anonymity online.
On vaguntrader.com, internet servers provide a home base for more than the buying, selling and trading of guns. The online forum plays host to hundreds of topic boards, organizing site visitors into categories ranging from posts about recent Virginia gun legislation to members’ recent fishing trips to blatant political statements.
In a forum post titled “WARNING!!! Our Governor has us in his sights,” anonymous users attack Democratic legislators and officials both in state and national politics for their efforts to enact gun control measures.
When messaged for a comment on these and similar posts, no site moderators responded. The site’s thousands of members create a web of gun owners in Virginia, hidden in internet anonymity and holding an important role in Virginia’s gun culture.
The NRA’s registration table was the first and last thing visitors saw at the Richmond gun show, placed squarely in front of the entrance. For groups like the NRA and the VCDL, visibility plays a crucial role in their establishment of modern gun conventions in Virginia. These groups act as the face of gun culture in the state, while sites like vaguntrader.com contribute a buried forum for the spread of far more than weapons.
In the parking lot outside the exhibition hall, the sound of conservative radio host Alex Jones’ show “Infowars” projected from the open door of a Dodge pickup, an older man in the driver’s seat with his rifle next to him. When approached, he refused to speak about the event or his personal views on the culture of guns in the state. He shut his door and turned up the volume.
“These are dangerous times for gun owners,” the voice on the radio yelled. “Be prepared to defend yourself and your rights at any cost.”